Daniel Jones is staring at a possible Todd Bowles nightmare

The Panthers were trying to fool the Buccaneers. Cam Newton began inching toward the line of scrimmage clearing a direct snap to Christian McCaffrey who caught the ball and headed for the left corner of the end zone.

It was fourth-and-1 at the Bucs’ 2-yard-line and a touchdown would have tied the game 20-20. But cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III read the play and pushed McCaffrey out-of-bounds just short of the end zone. The goal-line stand preserved a 20-14 victory for Tampa Bay and epitomized the improvement the Bucs defense has made under Todd Bowles.

The former Jets head coach is back serving as Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator in Tampa, a major reason why it won’t be the same-old Bucs defense when the Giants visit Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

“[Bowles] has a talented group of guys and a lot of depth,” Giants offensive guard Kevin Zeitler said. “When you put that all together it’s always a challenge for an offensive line and our team in general to see if we can execute.”

Ranked 27th in total defense last season, the Bucs have improved to eighth after their first two games in 2019: a 31-17 loss to the 49ers (who scored just one offensive touchdown) and their victory Sept. 12 against the Panthers. After switching from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4, the Bucs are allowing 304 yards per game, including just 68.5 yards rushing.

The Tampa Bay defense held McCaffrey, one of the most dynamic players in the league, to just 53 totals yards.

“That shows the defense has bought in to what he’s teaching,” Zeitler said. They’re playing hard and making the play when it counts.”

Bowles gives the credit to his players.

“It’s still early,” he said this week in Tampa. “But the guys are playing hard, they’re playing for each other and they’re playing together. The big thing with us is communication. They’re communicating more.”

Bowles served as Arians’ defensive coordinator in Arizona from 2013-14 before being named the Jets’ head coach in 2015. He was 24-40 when fired after the 2018 season. He reunited with Arians, who was named the Bucs’ head coach during the offseason.

Bowles has plenty of experience going against rookie quarterbacks and it doesn’t bode well for the Giants and Daniel Jones, who will be making his first career start Sunday. None of the five rookies who started against Bowles while he was a defensive coordinator or head coach won. That lists includes Marcus Mariota, Josh Allen, DeShone Kizer, Derek Carr and Mike Glennon.

The Bucs are reviewing preseason tapes of Jones, who can expect plenty of blitz packages and disguised defenses from Bowles. The Bucs are concerned about Jones’ mobility, but also had no problem containing Newton last week.

“We’re not sure what he brings,” Bowles said of Jones. “He’s replacing a great quarterback in Eli and they wouldn’t replace him if [Jones] wasn’t a great quarterback. We just have to get ready to play the Giants.”

The Jets didn’t make enough plays for Bowles. After going 10-6 and narrowly missing the playoffs in 2015, his teams went 5-11, 5-11 and 4-12 before he was fired.

“He was a great coach and everybody respected him,” said Eric Tomlinson, the former Jets tight end now with the Giants. “He always had great defensive schemes that were hard to go against in practice.”

The Bucs spent the offseason rebuilding their defense. Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, a free agent signee from the Browns, has all four of the team’s sacks. Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh was signed to strengthen the run defense, while LB/S Deone Bucannon played under Bowles with the Cardinals, and spent the previous five seasons in Arizona.

The Bucs also used their first five draft picks on defensive players, including fourth-round selection DE Anthony Nelson who has offered quality minutes, included a forced fumble against the Panthers.

Giants head coach Pat Shurmur knows what he’s up against a Bowles defense.

“They’re very fundamental in what they do,” he said. “They can do everything they need to do to defend an offense.”

Bowles will try to make life miserable for Jones on Sunday. The rookie quarterback had better expect the unexpected.

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